Egyptian Arabic - Official Status

Official Status

Egyptian Arabic has no official status, and is not officially recognized as a language. Standard Arabic, a modernized form of Classical Arabic (Koranic Arabic), is the official language of Egypt (see diglossia). Interest in the local vernacular began in the 1800s, as the Egyptian national movement for self-determination was taking shape. Questions about the reform and modernization of Arabic came to the fore, and for many decades to follow they were hotly debated in Egyptian intellectual circles. Proposals ranged from developing neologisms to replace archaic terminology in Standard Arabic; to the simplification of syntactical and morphological rules and the introduction of colloquialisms; to complete "Egyptianization" (tamṣīr) by abandoning the so-called Standard Arabic in favor of Masri or Egyptian Arabic.

Proponents of language reform in Egypt included Qasim Amin, who also wrote the first Egyptian feminist treatise, former President of the Egyptian University, Ahmed Lutfi el-Sayed, and noted intellectual Salama Moussa. They adopted a modernist, secular approach and disagreed with the assumption that Arabic was an immutable language because of its association with the Quran. The first modern Egyptian novel to be written in the vernacular was Muhammad Husayn Haykal's Zaynab in 1913. Other notable novelists such as Ihsan Abdel Quddous and Yusuf Idris, and poets such as Salah Jaheen, Abnudi and Fagoumi, helped solidify vernacular literature as a distinct literary genre.

Amongst certain groups within Egypt's elite, Egyptian Arabic enjoyed a brief period of rich literary output. This dwindled with the rise of Egyptian Arab nationalism, which had gained wide popularity in Egypt by the final years of the Egyptian and Sudanese monarchy, as demonstrated vividly by Egypt's involvement in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 under King Farouk. The Egyptian Revolution of 1952, led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser, further enhanced the significance of Arab nationalism, making it a central element of Egyptian state policy. The importance of Standard Arabic was re-emphasised in the public sphere by the revolutionary government, and efforts to accord any formal language status to the Egyptian vernacular were ignored. Egyptian Arabic was identified as a mere dialect, and one that was not even spoken universally in Egypt itself, with almost all of Upper Egypt speaking the Saidi dialect of Arabic. Though the revolutionary government heavily sponsored the use of the Egyptian vernacular in films, plays, television programmes, and music, the pre-revolution use of Standard Arabic in official publications was retained.

Linguistic commentators have noted the multi-faceted approach of the Egyptian revolutionaries towards the Arabic language. Whereas Egypt's first President Muhammad Naguib exhibited a preference for using Standard Arabic in his public speeches, his successor Gamal Abdel Nasser was renowned for using the vernacular, and punctuating his speeches with traditional Egyptian words, and expressions. Conversely, Standard Arabic was the norm for state news outlets, including newspapers, magazines, television, and radio. This was especially true of Egypt's national broadcasting company, the Arab Radio and Television Union, which was established with the intent of providing content for the entire Arab World, not merely Egypt, hence the need to broadcast in the standard rather than vernacular. The Voice of the Arabs radio station in particular had an audience from across the region, and the use of anything other than Standard Arabic was viewed as eminently incongruous.

As the status of Egyptian Arabic vis-à-vis Classical Arabic can have such political and religious implications in Egypt, the question of whether Egyptian Arabic should be considered a "dialect" or "language" can be a source of debate. In sociolinguistics, Egyptian Arabic can be seen as one of many distinct varieties which, despite arguably being languages on abstand grounds, are united by a common dachsprache in Literary Arabic (MSA).

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